Save the World in 60 Minutes… Go! The #flashloan Project

Something amazing happened yesterday at Ed Camp BLC. It was one of those moments that simply cannot happen during a traditional professional development experience.  The session, led by Jeremy Angoff (@mytakeonit), was entitled “Save the World in 60 Minutes.  Go!”

When I decided to attend this session, I assumed that Jeremy was going to present on a project done by students, perhaps a public service project.  In fact, even Jeremy didn’t know what this session was going to produce.  Jeremy challenged the group of educators in the room with the task of coming up with a way that we could, in the short period of time we were meeting, do something positive for the world.  Not only did we have to come up with an idea, we had to set it in motion so that something positive would happen before we left the one-hour session.  There were no constraints.  There were no guidelines other than we needed to make an appreciable difference in some way.

We started out with brainstorming. In fact Jeremy encouraged us to try to throw our worst ideas on the table as a way of getting over that fear of wondering whether or not our ideas were good enough or not.  Our table, fixated on the idea that something needed to be done quickly, tended to come up with ideas related to our own experiences or those of our students.  As a result, tended to toss around what could be termed as first world problems. As time went on we were encouraged to think about second and third world issues.  After about only 10 minutes, the combined groups had a fair number of ideas to sift through.

We decided to make our immediate goal to participate in micro-lending through an organization called Kiva works with local organizations to provide small loans to people without traditional banking options, usually to fund small business or agriculture endeavors.  New members who respond to an “invite” receive a free trial – a $25 credit to put toward their first loan – courtesy of one of Kiva’s sponsors.  You can follow my “invite” via this link:  There are a limited number of free trials.

Our goal was to have everyone sponsor a loan through using their free trial and then contribute additional funds to the loan of their choice.  With 25-30 people in the room, we would have $625 – $750 loaned just using free trials.  If everyone chipped in $25 of their own money, we would double that amount.

In order to make a true impact we needed to move beyond just those in the room.  It was amazing to watch a group of people, many who had never met before that session, spring into action.  A quick inventory of skills allowed a loose division of labor.  Some participants began to work on a website,  A Facebook page was attempted but then abandoned as the service was being difficult, possibly due to our wifi connection.  A Twitter hastag, #flashloan, was initiated and tweets sent out with links to Kiva and the new website.  Twitter users with large followings were contacted in hopes that they would tweet or re-tweet the cause and registrants of the greater BLC conference were tasked with promoting the project there.  Meanwhile, a group of participants started sifting through some of the loan applicants to select those where we thought we could make the greatest difference. We decided to focus on loan applications that were nearing the finish line as a way to create a bigger impact, tipping those loans to full funding.

Cheers went up around the room as various participants helped various loans reach their 100% mark.  The challenge is on. How many people can we get to help out both through using their initial $25 free funding and adding $25 (or more!) of their own money to help others?

I don’t think Jeremy knew where this was going when he started. But from a small spark something much larger grew.  It just goes to show how with one idea and a lot of collaboration great things can happen.

It’s That Time of the Year

It’s that time of year again. No, not time to move your clocks forward and change the batteries in your smoke detectors. Not time to get your loved one’s Valentine’s Day gift (although it might be a good time to start planning for that one). No, this is the time of the year when otherwise intelligent and rational administrators start obsessing about the MCAS. That’s the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assesment System or, if you’re talking to my son, the Massachusetts Child Abuse System.

From August to January, we have earnest conversations about building curriculum and learning experiences around developmentally appropriate standards, taking each student’s needs into account, and developing well-rounded, life-long learners and citizens. Yet, every year, not long after we return from winter break, you can feel it coming on like an impending cold you know is going to make your life miserable but you are powerless to stop. The conversation starts to turn. We start counting the days until tests and gauging how we can shoehorn in the remaining topics before the big day.

This year I am watching the approach of MCAS fever with a sense of curiosity as well as the usual feeling of dread. When will the first casual comment drop about teaching “double math?”. Wait for it… 3… 2… 1! Yup, it’s still January and we’ve been asked to “think about it.”

I’ve thought about it.

I’ve thought about it and I say “NO!”

No, I will not give up Social Studies and my students’ opportunity to understand the country and culture in which they live.

No, I really don’t care that they have done away with the Social Studies MCAS due to budget constraints. Actually, I’m thrilled they have done away with the tests so I can focus on learning about what makes societies fascinating without worrying about teaching how to take that test, too.

No, I will not put aside hands-on learning in math to practice taking multiple-choice tests.

No, I will not format all of my literature questions like MCAS questions.

This is not MCAS season, it is the springtime of my students’ lives and I’m not giving one more second of that precious time to MCAS than I have to.

62 Pounds


62 lbs.  No, that’s not how much weight I’ve resolved to lose this year.  Or, maybe it is.

62 lbs. is the weight of spelling workbooks, teachers’ guides, math papers, social studies quizzes, memoranda, and a laptop that I hauled across the snowy school parking lot today after the long weekend.

62 lbs., almost exclusively of paper, much of which I was unable to address over the long weekend (oh, you thought teachers rested on long weekends?) because there simply wasn’t enough time.  There wasn’t enough time, despite giving over two full days to school work.  Days that could have, should have, been spent with my children.

62 lbs. that symbolize much of what frustrates me about elementary education.  62 lbs. that sucked up time that could have been used to create new Guided Reading lesson plans that were tailored to the needs of the small groups I take each afternoon.  Time that could have been used to find materials to supplement my unit on the 13 colonies.  Time and mental energy that could have gone into figuring out what to do about the student that still struggles with understanding place value or the student who thus far refuses to go beyond the surface meaning in our reading.  Oh, and time to enjoy my daughter’s company before she returns to college next weekend.

The spelling workbooks were by far the weightiest portion of this load, both literally and figuratively.  We have no time in our schedule for students to do this work with teacher support during the day.  Daily correcting time during the school day so feedback is faster isn’t available either unless I stop doing hands-on experiences in science and social studies.  I’m stuck going over huge stack of pages (still in the workbooks) at the end of the week, despite knowing I’m short-changing my students.  Giving students feedback too late and in the wrong format on spelling and vocabulary errors is worse than useless.  I dread the time I spend correcting these.

There IS a better way and it is available to us now, if only we would put our resources to work.  There are online components for spelling and math computation that give instantaneous feedback and provide additional opportunities for practice until students reach mastery.  They also include performance information that assists teachers in knowing who needs extra help or intervention.

And it doesn’t stop there: there are a myriad of ways to reduce the paper, speed up the feedback, and make our planning time more meaningful, so that we can create more authentic, more targeted and dare I say, more important learning opportunities for our students.  Instead, we are bogged down with paper and data entry.

I realize that not all students have equal access to the internet.  However, I know that almost all of my students have Facebook accounts and adequate computer access to keep them updated.  We have the ability to provide computing options if we untether our netbooks and maybe even some iPads from the school grounds.  My focus is on 5th grade curriculum – surely there are those out there who can come up with ways to use technology to set us free.

I’d really like to lose 62 lbs. this year.  If we all put our heads together, surely we can make some progress.  Heck, I’d be happy if I could lose 31 lbs this year.

The other day, a snippet of conversation caught my attention and I’ve had a hard time letting it go.  The conversation was about a former student who has moved on to middle school and is having difficulty.  At the parent-teacher conference, the teacher inquired as to the parent’s involvement in homework and projects.  When the parent said she believes that homework and projects are the child’s responsibility, the teacher asked if the parent understood that at least 80% of students receive some level of parental assistance in completing their 6th grade projects.

80% or more of 6th grade students require parental assistance in order to succeed on projects?  What’s wrong with this picture?

Parental Input – How and How Much?

A number of years ago, a parent called me to tell me that I had ruined her daughter’s fifth-grade year because our class didn’t have a Valentine’s Day party.  In my defense, Valentine’s Day fell on the weekend that year and I did have an voluntary celebration for students who wanted to do so during recess that Friday.  Nonetheless, this parent felt that because I didn’t use some of our academic time to hold an official party and her daughter decided not to give up outdoor recess to celebrate Valentine’s Day, I had made fifth-grade the worst year ever.

Early the next year, I ran into the same parent who told me that the middle school was wonderful for her daughter, who was getting straight A’s.  The parent made it clear that this was a sign of how great the middle school was doing in educating her daughter.  Or maybe it was the monthly assemblies complete with skits, songs, and lip-synched dance numbers that made it such a rewarding school year.    Apparently, it never occurred to her that the academic focus of our classroom the previous year had contributed to her daughter doing so well as she started middle school.

This is the parent that comes to mind when people start talking about making parent feedback a large part of teacher evaluation.  Every now and then I receive a nice card, email, or verbal comment from a parent letting me know that they are happy that I was their son or daughter’s teacher and I treasure every one.  More often, it is the parent who has a complaint who takes the time to comment on the perceived failings of their child’s teacher.

What are the criteria by which parents would evaluate teachers?  This parent would evaluate me based on the number of parties I had during the year.  Would I receive a higher rating for a make-your-own-sundae party or popcorn and snacks?  Given that parents aren’t in my classroom during the day, would they base their ratings on what their children told them?  Maybe I should follow the Friday video and popcorn tradition of a colleague who was the most requested teacher for years?  I would get great parent and student ratings, but would I be a better teacher?

Just wondering…

Weathering the Storm, Together

Photo courtesy of Dan Callahan

I wrote this post earlier this month but never got around to posting after having technical difficulties.


When the storm hit on Saturday, I was on a bus to NYC with my son. We endured some white-knuckle moments as the bus swerved to miss cars, stopped short due to stalled traffic, and as we passed several awful accidents. We arrived safe and sound in the city and battled our way through falling slush, first to our hotel and later to a show and back.

While we heard about widespread power outages and downed trees back home, we didn’t really understand the extent of the damage until late Sunday night as we drove home from the the bus station.

We encountered detour after detour due to fallen trees. With much ofthe town in total darkness due to power outages, we often did not see trees blocking the road until we were practically upon them. It was eerie, seeing our town, places that seemed unfamiliar despite my living here most of my life, due to the darkness.

The next morning, as I ventured out of my cold home in serch of ice to preserve the bulk purchases of frozen foods I had stocked just the week before, I began to take in the extend of the damage.  My town looked a shambles. The trees that lined streets and filled yards, most of which had not yet had a

chance to don their fall colors, never mind drop their leaves, had taken the brunt of the storm. Mature trees rent down the middle, will never recover. Everywhere I looked, there was destruction: large limbs on rooftops, branches hanging on electrical wires, bringing them to the ground, ornamentals bowed over until they snapped, and even trees completely toppled, their roots exposed to the cold air. Branches, clean up crews and electrical repair teams made the roads close to impassable, despite the many police officers working to coordinate traffic.

But amidst all of this desolation, the desolation, threatening to weigh down my heart, there were bright spots that lightened my spirits. In each part of town where the electricity still lit the streets and houses, I saw driveways filled with far more cars than belonged to those who lived there. Friends, relatives, neighbors, opening their homes to those without heat. Offereing beds, showers, meal to those who would otherwise spend a cold a night in the cold.  Some of my neighbors still do not have have power three days after the losing their electricity. Students are going back to school, leaving cold, dark homes.  Parents happy to have someplace light and warm where their children can have a hot meal and a chance to take their mind off the destruction around them.


As the snow turns to slush and then water and then disappears altogether, as we clean up and get back to life as usual, as the fresh scars on trees and the damage to cars and homes becomes a distant memory, I hope we remember the incredible warmth of a lit window and friends inviting us out of the storm and
into their hearts and homes.

Puppy Love


I want a dog.  I really want a dog.  My canine soul-mate, Huckleberry, passed away about 5 years ago and I’ve missed that feeling of unfaltering love and completeness that comes with sharing your life with a dog.

On weekends, I find myself trolling the internet, looking at pictures of puppies.  Always a fan of big dogs in the past, lately I’ve been captivated by the look of puggle puppies, those pug-beagle crossbreeds.  Especially the ones with wrinkly noses.  Honestly, how can anyone resist those wrinkly noses?

With my outrageous schedule, though, it would be irresponsible to get a dog unless I could take it to work.  A dog would be the perfect addition to my classroom: my struggling readers and writers could read to him without feeling self-conscious, he would be the inspiration for creative writing, caring for him would provide an outlet for some of my students with emotional needs, etc.  He would be therapeutic for teacher and students alike.  Really, it’s a win-win situation all around.

Alas, the rules say “no dogs allowed.”  I pout.

Not to be deterred in my quest for a pet, I opted for an interim solution.  Meet my pet bromeliads, Spike and Duke.

Spike is the one on the left. Duke is on the right.


Spike and Duke taking their thrice-weekly dip.

Hardly the same as having a dog, but I don’t have to feel guilty if I work late.


This book donated by The (your name here) Fund for Public Education

Apparently, there is a baby boom among the bargain-conscious crowd.  Or so I’ve been informed by a number of used-book store owners who told me today that they almost always have used baby naming books in stock but have sold out recently.  No, I am not expecting a little bundle of joy – unless you count the package arriving via USPS – I was in search of these books for my classroom.

A little background: I decided to adapt Alycia Zimmerman’s “What’s in a Name?” literacy unit for my class as our first writing project.  It has all the hallmarks of a good start-of-the-year mini-unit, helping to build classroom skills and routines while affirming our culture of respecting and celebrating individuality.  While originally written with third-graders in mind, a little adaptation made it perfect for my struggling fifth-grade readers and writers.  Students will research their names and the name of a classmate through dead-tree references, online resources, and family interviews and then write about them.

I already own a number of the thematic read-alouds as well as a few chapter books that students can read to extend the concept. With my children now teenagers, I no longer have baby name books.  Name books are also a great resource for finding character names when writing stories.  Hence the use of a Sunday trying to track down used baby name books and the discovery that in a mere 10 years my services as a fifth-grade teacher will be more in demand than ever before.

Buying books out of my own pocket is nothing new as practically none of the 1,500 or so books in my classroom were purchased with district money.  I refer to these as donations by the Diana B. Marcus Fund for Public Education by way of my Visa card. This leads to the need to find books at a reasonable price, often used books.  Used books on line are plentiful and I’ve purchased many, including the class set of Light & Sound textbooks in my room, through sites like Alibris.  The catch?  Shipping can cost so much that the total cost of a used book online may become greater than the purchase of a new book at the bookstore down the street.  As a result, I’ve reserved purchasing online to those books not available locally.

I decided to start by hitting my social and professional (is there a difference anymore?) networks, posting requests for donations to facebook and school email.  Not surprisingly, a number of responses suggested having my students simply Google names.  However, I want my students to know not only how to find something online, but also to develop the skills of finding information in an alphabetized reference book.  After striking out in the friend network, I hit the used-book stores both in person and on the phone.  No dice there, either.

I finally ended up at Better World Books and purchased 8 books for the grand total of $26.76 by selecting only used books with free shipping.  Along the way I discovered a few things:

1. Someone named Bruce Lansky has an obsession with writing books of baby names.

2. I applaud the aim of the book, “Baby Names Your Child Can Live With.”  Admit it, you’ve met people who should have received this book before naming their children.  Not all of them are rock stars.

3. While I shudder at the thought of the book, “Sci-Fi Baby Names: 500 Out-of-this-World Baby names from Anakin to Zardoz,” I probably have a number of friends who now plan on buying this book prior to the birth of their next child.  You can meet them all at the next ComicCon.

4. For a mere $175.76 I could get 1-day shipping of my order.  I resisted the impulse.

5. For $.40, I could carbon-offset my shipping.  I coughed up the 40 cents for the good of my conscience.

To those of you who scooped up all the used baby name books at our local stores, my class will be ready and waiting for your children when the time comes.  Please send them with books to donate.

If a picture’s worth a thousand words…

New Crayons

It was Saturday afternoon, nearly the end of our April vacation, and I hear my son in the other room becoming increasingly frustrated.  Our cheap paper cutter isn’t cutting evenly and he has a project due shortly after his return to school.

This post could easily be about the fact that my son was given a group project over vacation that required us to bring a laptop, printer, craft paper, paper cutter, glue sticks, colored pencils and group diplomacy with us to Cape Cod, but it isn’t.  I’ll save that for next time.

My issue is with the purpose and priorities of the projects my children have completed as they made their way through middle school.  My issue is with the emphasis put on artwork and the exact nature of how artwork is to be included in projects.

My son has struggled with fine motor difficulties his entire life.  He would never qualify, at least in our school district, for Occupational Therapy services, but handwriting, precision cutting, and drawing are a real challenge for him to do neatly.  I give him great credit for finding activities that challenge him, such as complex Lego™ constructions, and persevering with them so that his strength and dexterity has improved somewhat.  Any and all attempts to get him to use a pencil grip reduced us both to tears, and I am thankful that he has learned to type well for his age.

My contention, whenever discussing projects with him, is that the teacher really wants to know what he has learned about a subject and that the visuals, while helpful in conveying this, are secondary to his showing what he knows about the subject and can come from a variety of sources.  I tell him I’m a teacher and I know what teachers want.  This is when he shoves the ubiquitous rubric and accompanying checklist at me and storms off, telling me that I don’t know anything.

He’s right.  Apparently, I don’t know a thing.  So many points are assigned to the creation of beautiful illustrations, complex constructions (the infamous Secret Room Book Report) and artful presentations that the child with limited artistic skills (or budget) cannot possibly earn a good grade.  One project prohibited pictures taken from the internet, magazines, or even personal photographs.  Each and every “illustration” had to actually be illustrated by the student in marker or colored pencil.

So, I ask, when is the last time an adult had to pull out colored pencils in order to add visuals to their presentation?  If we are teaching children real world skills, wouldn’t the time be better spent teaching them about Creative Commons, citation format, licenses, and how to pick a photo that really evokes the theme of their presentation?

What about making our pictures move?  What about video or animation? What about presentation formats that allow the inclusion of voice and music?

I believe that visuals are an important and powerful element to delivering a message, especially in this day of digital media.  Why not harness all of the tools at our disposal in bringing a message to life?  Why couldn’t this project have been completed using a program like Glogster to bring maps, portraits, and text together as a unified whole?  Or a multimedia presentation using video and audio in a slideshow, movie or other format?

It pains me to think of the learning opportunities lost as my son struggled to recreate a portrait of Anne Frank with Crayola™ markers last year.  Did his frustrating attempt really help his teacher know what he had learned of Anne and the Holocaust?  Should he really have spent more time and energy on this portrait than on the rest of his presentation combined?

What is it we want our students to learn?  What is it we want them to be able to do?  And why are we putting obstacles in the way of their learning and doing?

As for my feelings about a group project assigned over school vacation, stay tuned, I have a few things to say about that, as well.

Google Time

It seems that “Google Days” and “Google time” are the new catchphrases on administrators’ lips in my district.  Last year, Burlington, MA, high school principal, Patrick Larkin (Twitter: bhsprincipal), christened one of his building’s professional development days as a “Google Day,” giving faculty the opportunity to select a project or area of study of their own choosing and immerse themselves in it for the day.  Across town, John Lyons (Twitter: pgprincipal) plans to do the same with one professional development day at the Pine Glen Elementary School this fall.

The terms are taken from Google’s corporate policy that enables employees to use 20% of their time working on projects that aren’t necessarily in their job descriptions.  They can use the time to develop something new or solve a problem.  In the case of Burlington High, many of the teachers used the time to learn or implement new technology.  It also allowed teachers to collaborate who normally would not have had the time due to differing schedules and responsibilities.

Tonight, I had the chance to hear Tony Wagner, author of The Global Achievement Gap, speak at the Massachusetts Teachers Association Summer Conference.  Tony took the idea beyond professional development days:

What if our students dedicated 20% of their school time to pursuing interests and projects that piqued their curiosity, regardless of whether or not we could tie a curriculum standard to their topic?

Like all good questions, it generates many others as we seek an answer (I am reminded of  Tom Whitby’s comment: If your students can Google an answer to your question, you may want to rethink the question.)

Do we have the courage to step away and let our students set their own curricula and develop the skills to pursue them?

How does this change the role of the teacher/educator?

What will it take to transform the role of the student, centered for so long on compliance and “right answers,” to that of self-directed, life-long learner such that our students become, as Tony Wagner puts it, career-, college-, and citizenship-ready?